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Media Release: Privacy and the media
The right to privacy and the public's right to know are often cast as opposites but both are vital in a modern democracy. Freedom of the media is essential in maintaining an informed, confident and prosperous nation. A right to privacy is essential in preserving our dignity.
Contrary to recent media reports, privacy is not about protecting wrong doing or encouraging secrecy. It is about protecting the privacy of individuals--not about masking the operations of corrupt organisations.
Extension of privacy legislation to the private sector is not about changing that balance. It is about giving each and every one of us greater control over what happens to our personal information held in the private sector.
However, it is clear from recent articles and editorials that the media are uncomfortable with the Government's proposal to extend privacy legislation to the private sector and they see it as a potential blocker to free speech and freedom of the media.
Various examples from New Zealand are cited to support these views. The New Zealand media claim that they have not been able to investigate fully news stories in the public interest as government organisations have refused to release information because of the Privacy Act.
While I appreciate the media's concerns and agree that they are important, we need to remember that, for over 10 years, Australia has had a federal Privacy Act, which applies to federal government agencies and to the credit sector. I am not aware of any occasion, during those 10 years, where a journalist has complained to my Office that the Privacy Act has stopped them accessing information.
When considering the new legislation, it is important to bear in mind its actual scope. The new scheme will only cover personal information held by an organisation. Therefore if a journalist is seeking records which contain no personal information then the Privacy Act will not be an issue.
The proposal to extend the Privacy Act is a vital step towards ensuring that all Australians have greater control over their personal information, regardless of where it is held.
This issue will only grow in importance as technologies increasingly provide opportunities for our personal information to be collected, stored, and used--often without us knowing it.
Numerous surveys show that there is a growing unease in Australia and internationally about the impact of new technologies on an individual's privacy.
A Roy Morgan survey, published in August '99, found that "The majority of Australians (56 percent) are worried about invasion of privacy issues created by new information technologies â€¦"
A recent survey of 5,000 Internet users, by the GVU Center, College of Computing Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta found that 77.5 percent of users valued privacy over convenience when buying on-line.
We all want better ways to lead our lives and many new technologies will help us do this. But the cost should not be that we lose control over our personal information. The new legislation is intended to help each of us maintain that control.
However, privacy in a modern society can not be an absolute. The rights of the individual must always be balanced against the needs of the community.
The National Principles for the Fair Handling of Personal Information (National Principles ), on which the new legislation will be based, carefully balance a number of public interests. For example, they recognise the public interest in government, business and law enforcement agencies being able to go about their daily activities without unnecessary intervention. The National Principles are sound and are based on internationally recognised principles that have evolved over the last 20 years.
If the private sector becomes covered by the Act, I see my role as upholding the rights and responsibilities of individuals and organisations. My current statutory responsibilities state that I shall have due regard for interests that compete with privacy. In line with this, it is my aim to help the media, individuals and organisations find privacy solutions to issues of concern.
The Government has indicated that the media will be exempt from the new legislation and that they will not be restricted in their efforts to investigate issues in the public interest. I firmly believe that the extension of the Privacy Act will not interfere with the actions of responsible journalists.
I am sure that journalists who abide by the Journalists' Code of Ethics would have little concern with the proposed new legislation, however I appreciate that some so called "foot-in-the-door journalists" could be affected.
Principle seven of the Journalists' Code of Ethics states "They shall use fair and honest means to obtain news, films, tapes and documents" and principle nine states "They shall respect private grief and personal privacy and shall have the right to resist compulsion to intrude on them." The proposed legislation can only help in this regard.